By Sharon Watson, Public Affairs Director, Kansas Adjutant General's Department
Twenty one public information officers from across the nation took part Aug. 6-10 in FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute’s inaugural Master Public Information Officer course. The course is designed for senior public information officers and external affairs officers involved in the critical role of communicating to the public in an emergency.
Phil Politano, Emergency Management Institute training specialist and course manager, oversaw the design of the five-day course along with a team of experts in instructional design, crisis communication and management techniques. The course goal is to help public information officers involved in large-scale responses better understand the needs of the many audiences with which they must work and the strategies needed to be successful in such difficult environments.
A team of five instructors, who have all worked large-scale disasters or crisis communication issues, facilitated discussions throughout the week-long training. Topics included managing a joint information center where messages are coordinated for multiple jurisdictions, communicating with various stakeholders and vulnerable populations, and developing communication strategies and training for public information issues.
“It is different, it is intense, it is high-level training and education for today’s external affairs officer,” Politano said.
Students in this first course included city, county and state public information officers from a variety of fields such as law enforcement, police, health and emergency management.
“Participating in the Master Public Information Officer training enabled me to think of my public information program from a more strategic level, rather than merely focusing on the day-to-day tasks of issuing media releases and responding to interview requests,” said David Gervino, emergency management coordinator, DuPage County Ill.) Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. “This ‘big picture’ thinking will make it possible for me to implement changes that will significantly improve my overall program.”
Politano hopes this course will help the emergency response community better understand the critical role of public information officers, a role he believes is often undervalued until a disaster or crisis occurs.
“Public information is a critical function, directly attached to incident commanders in the incident command system, yet we consistently find jurisdictions that do not understand the critical nature of the public information function until something bad happens,” he said.
His hope is to see highly trained public information officers become advocates for the importance of their roles so they can more effectively prepare their community before and during an emergency.
“The Master PIO [Public Information Officer] class was an outstanding opportunity to help develop the next generation of forward strategic thinking public information officers, especially when it comes to disaster preparedness,” said Thomas Iovino, an instructor who serves as the public information specialist for Pinellas County, Fla.
But the course isn’t over for the first group of Master Public Information Officer participants. They must each complete a research paper on an issue in public information that can be implemented in their own jurisdictions.
“There is really no significant body of knowledge for emergency management public information officers, telling them what they need to know to face the challenges, and we believe we can provide that by the research students in this class do,” Politano explained. “This is modeled after the National Fire Academy’s very successful Executive Fire Officer Program, which really looks for cutting edge information for a body of knowledge for that audience.”
Politano hopes the sharing of ideas and circumstances, both in the class and the research project, will provide a new level of resources for public information officers not previously available.
“The level of training offered in this course has provided me with a new perspective and commitment to communicate with our stakeholders, whether it’s for a city program or a life-saving message,” said Annie DeChance, City of Scottsdale (Ariz.) Water Department public information officer.
Student Joel Lavender, Dallas Fire/Rescue, addresses fellow students attending the inaugural Master Public Information Officer class August 6-10, 2012 at FEMA’s Emergency Management Institute. (Sharon Watson, Public Affairs Director, Kansas Adjutant General's Department, August 9, 2012, Emergency Management Institute Emmitsburg, MD)